Why the American Legion and VFW Matter More, Now

And Why a Bunch of Post-9/11 Veterans are Organizing a “New Century” Legion Post

By Charles M. Pickett (updated: 14 May 2019)

As a direct consequence of the end of military conscription in 1973, more of America’s bellicose burden is concentrated in a shrinking segment of our population. While the end of the draft is considered highly successful and widely embraced, it has lead to a growing military/civilian divide in our country. The American people are increasingly disconnected from the U.S. military and military service. This disconnect is not unique to America or this age; unfortunately, this reoccurring disconnect historically leads to the marginalization and alienation of the service, sacrifice, and the needs of military veterans. As current demographic and social trends continue to converge, American veterans will continue to be pushed aside, ostracized, and devalued–which is why veteran service organizations such as the American Legion and the VFW matter now more than ever.

Graph of Veteran Population
Graph of total U.S. service members and deployed service members in all U.S. wars.

In a representative democracy, numbers count. Down from 18 percent in 1980, U.S. veterans currently made up about 18,939,219 of the 246,379,319 citizens or 7.7 percent of the total adult population in America according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2013-2017 ACS) This demographic drop coincides with decreases in active duty personnel, fewer large conflicts, and the aging and passing away of senior veterans. Having less military veterans is actually a great thing because it means America is in fewer large-scale conflicts. For example, the Veterans Administration (VA) reports there were more than 16 million Americans serving in the armed forces during the six-years of World War II. In contrast, after 18 years of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), approximately 3.3 million have served worldwide, many serving multiple deployments (Holder). While making less military veterans is a great idea, as veteran numbers drop their needs will increasingly go unheeded and critics will cast them not as active citizens who selflessly served our nation but as burdens on our society. It wouldn’t be the first time.

For most veterans, their service and sacrifices shouldn’t be lionized like some conquering hero, but they shouldn’t be cast aside either. Marginalization is to relegate an individual or a group to an unimportant or powerless position within a society; alienation is to stop being friendly or helpful towards an individual or group, especially when an attachment formerly existed. Unfortunately, if American history is an indicator, our veterans are victims of these recurring social trends. For instance, in 1861 Congress established federal pension benefits for volunteers wounded on the field of battle to promote voluntary enlistments. Eventually, northern Civil War veterans were seen by critics as “a nuisance who saddled the nation with debt and doleful memories,” according to Brian Jordan in Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. Politicians would accuse veterans and veteran groups of “waving the bloody shirt” or paint armless veterans as “pension beggars” in an effort to ostracize veterans.

In our current war, American service members and veterans are lauded for doing something for the country most Americans don’t want to do or can’t do (because three-quarters of Americans are overweight, under-educated, or have a criminal record and can’t even qualify to join a military service). Paradoxically, and a textbook example of alienation, because of their martial service, these same veterans are often viewed as a simmering menace to society and even feared by fellow citizens who prejudicially paint them as “crazy veterans” who all suffer from “the PTSD.” That said, the current level of marginalization and alienation in America isn’t metastasizing into outright persecution, but these reoccurring societal trends continue to impact all veterans, including the current Post-9/11 generation, and may even be a factor in the current veteran suicide crisis in America. Additionally, ostracizing veterans and devaluing their service is ungrateful and it sends a negative message to future generations of volunteers, impacting our nation’s strength. 

Veteran service organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars seek to better the lives of America’s service members, veterans, their families, their communities, and our country. In a nutshell, that’s their reason for existing. They foster camaraderie and celebrate our accomplishments and shared sacrifices. They bring veterans together, and through social, service, and charitable opportunities, veterans can lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives and overcome loneliness, defeat purposelessness, and continue to make a difference in this world. Additionally, these groups combat the unfortunate pathos of American veteranhood, perhaps mitigating the social stigma of being marginalized and alienated, but definitely challenging our political representatives who consistently seek to diminish the gracious entitlements granted to veterans by the American people.

In 2007, I became an American soldier and a member of a team (to quote the Soldier’s Creed). After two deployments, I decided to return to the peaceful ways of civil life. However, as all veterans know, military service changes a man. I missed that sense of camaraderie and mission. In early 2015, I organized a “new generation” VFW in New Haven because there wasn’t one in Connecticut’s second-largest city. Comprised of largely Post-9/11 veterans, we prospered and we were honored as an All-American Post in 2017.

As our VFW flourished, it increasingly felt like we were missing a large part of the team. Much like the Great War veterans occupying post-WWI Europe, Post-9/11 veterans see little distinction in the service of veterans based on duty location–especially veterans of our all-volunteer and combined-arms force. Moreover, from our first day of service to our last, soldiers are reminded of the Army Values, the Soldier’s Creed and the motto “one team, one fight.” It’s not about us. It’s about our battle buddies to our left and right. While some senior VFW comrades may see the two veteran service organizations as having an adversarial relationship, Post-9/11 veterans arguably recognize the need to closely ally veteran groups to combat these growing demographic and social trends arrayed against the veteran community.

The American Legion will celebrate its 100th anniversary between August 2018 and November 2019, ushering in a new century for the largest wartime veterans service organization in America. In keeping with the motto of the centennial program “Legacy & Vision,” comrades of the New Haven Legion and fellow wartime veterans aspire to celebrate a century of service of the Legion, while looking forward to a “new generation” of veterans incrementally assuming leadership of the largest veterans service organization in America. Despite some generational reservations, we see the centennial as a grand opportunity to charter a “new century” American Legion post, one that will uphold the military values we embrace and fulfill the ideals of the motto, “one team, one fight.”

EXAMPLES OF VETERAN DEVALUATION

09JAN2019: The Orange, Connecticut Board of Selectmen considered lowering the income cap for an optional veterans’ property tax exemption–thus lowering the number of town veterans qualifying for the exemption–to raise additional tax revenue. Local American Legion members attended a subsequent meeting and the income cap was raised to $75,000 (although the cap has been eliminated in many communities).

Works Cited

2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau.

Jordan, Brian Matthew. Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. New York: Liveright Publishing, 2015.

Holder, Kelly Ann. “Veterans Who Have Served Since 9/11 Are More Diverse.” The United States Census Bureau, 18 Sept. 2018, www.census.gov/library/stories/2018/04/post-9-11-veterans.html.

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